Interview with The Lesbian & Gay Foundation
Is it a problem for you to be labelled as a 'gay MP' or do you think that it is important that people acknowledge your sexual orientation?
I certainly don't want to be labelled or stereotyped. When I was first elected I felt that I had been selected on merit, regardless of my sexuality, and that was how it should be. But I've come to realise that's it's important for many others to see that gay people can succeed in all walks of life, including politics. I've had a lot of response from people saying how encouraged they've been simply by seeing an openly gay man get elected and reach the Shadow Cabinet, so I've realised that this matters not just for the Conservative Party, but to many other people, too.
You recently gave a speech in Washington on how gay people can fit in to conservative politics. How were you received over there in terms of people being ready for an open an inclusive debate on LGBT issues?
I wasn't over there to preach or interfere in their affairs, but I thought it was important to go and share some of the lessons that we've learnt in the UK about how conservative parties can change and be a safe place for gay people. I didn't encounter any hostility over there. Some of the feedback that I received from Americans and people around the world who were encouraged by my comments and the changes that the Conservative Party have gone through was quite moving.
You are one of two Conservative MPs who have taken out a civil partnership. Do you think that such legislation would have been brought in under a Conservative government?
The Conservative leadership supported civil partnerships and as a matter of fact more of our Shadow Cabinet voted for the measure than the Cabinet. I've always been more than willing to give full credit to the Blair Government for the advances they made in this area - though I'm afraid that Gordon Brown didn't vote for civil partnerships, or any of the other major changes to promote gay equality. He was mysteriously absent on each occasion. I wasn't an MP then, but I'm extremely grateful for the lead which others showed in changing the law and enabling me to make a public commitment as I have done. Entering a civil partnership has been incredibly important to me, as I know it has been for others.
At the Conservative conference in Manchester last October, the critical question for many gay voters was raised, that of being convinced that the Conservative party has changed. In your opinion what still needs to be done to reach out to gay voters?
The Conservative party has changed. We've got a leader who has publicly apologised for Section 28 and stood up in front of our party conference and said that he views civil partnerships and marriage as completely equal, and we're likely to have more openly gay MPs after the election than Labour. We're on a journey which isn't over, and it would be wrong to say that there isn't more we can do, but I think gay people can feel safe voting for the modern Conservative Party. As we reach a broad party consensus on gay equality, Conservatives can talk about the big issues which matter to gay people as much as they matter to all voters.
What would you say to voters who simply do not trust David Cameron's record on gay issues despite his apology on Section 28?
I think people have to make their own mind up, but I know that under David Cameron's leadership we have a changed Conservative party, and these changes are entrenched and will not be reversed.
But it's not just about the party leadership. The grassroots of the party have now selected around 20 openly gay candidates to fight the next General Election, many in winnable seats, and if we form a government with a majority of just one we will have more openly gay MPs than the Labour party.
So I think it's pretty clear that the party has changed from top to bottom and that gay people can trust us with their vote.
On the question of why gay people should vote Conservative, the message is often heard that gay people are not single issue voters. As a gay man do you think that being gay is more than just a single issue?
Of course it is. The biggest mistake that the current Government have made is to assume that gay people only vote on the single issue of being gay and that they will vote for them out of a sense of obligation. Gay people are not the property of the left, or any political party, and will be voting on the same issues as everyone else. I hope they'll be voting for change with the Conservatives as opposed to five more years of Gordon Brown - change to our broken economy, change to our broken society and change to our broken politics.
If your party was successful at the next election, what will your party do to continue to make sure Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual & Trans Voices are heard?
I think we have to work to keep the agenda moving forward and I've given three key examples of where action is still needed.
First, I think we need to do more to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. All bullying is unpleasant and unacceptable, but homophobic bullying can be particularly damaging to young people coming to terms with their sexuality. We need to give teachers and heads the power and responsibility to keep order and make clear what constitutes acceptable behaviour.
Second, we need to take action to deal with homophobia in sport, particularly in football which can legitimise homophobia elsewhere. I've been very critical of the FA which has been inexplicably slow to act. We should take the same zero tolerance attitudes to homophobic abuse as is taken towards racism.
Finally, we have to work to end homophobic hate crime which, very worryingly, seems to be on the rise. We need to implement the measures outlawing incitement to homophobic hatred which we supported, focusing on the serious cases rather than incidents of tasteless comments, and work with the police to help raise awareness of crimes targeted at the LGBT community.
It is often thought that politicians vote and act in a way that they think responds to public mood rather than with their own personal beliefs. Do you think this is a fair comment?
No. I can think of a few instances where I've said something I believed in which clearly didn't find favour with what the public! I always listen to the views of my constituents, but ultimately I'm not a delegate so I have to reach my own view about issues. As the philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, an MP betrays his constituents if he doesn't exercise his own judgement.
With so much legislation having brought in to protect LGBT rights over the last decade what do you think are the most important issues that affect LGBT equality in 2010?
I think most of the changes that need to be made now are not legislative ones, although we wouldn't rule out legislative changes if we thought they were necessary. Many of the concerns that I have outlined - tackling homophobic bullying, dealing with homophobia in sport and working to end homophobic hate crime - don't necessarily require legislation, but they do require strong leadership from government.
Much has been made in the last year of Conservative party links with 'controversial' European allies. What practical measures do you think a Conservative government can take to defend the rights of gay people in countries where they face active persecution?
Attitudes towards gay people have changed a lot in Britain and in our political parties, but the process is really only just beginning in many Eastern European countries, with the result that there's social conservatism in all of the party groupings in Europe, including Labour's. The EU doesn't determine social policy, but I think we can encourage our allies to make progress, and they are doing so.
97% of school teachers have heard the word gay used in a derogatory manner in schools, what would the Conservative party do to make school environment more inclusive and safe for lesbian, gay & bisexual people?
All bullying is unpleasant, but homophobic bullying can be particularly damaging to young people coming to terms with their sexuality. Stonewall have indicated that almost two thirds of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying - which is pretty shocking. But they also showed that where strong action is taken by teachers and other staff it can be reduced quite considerably. That's why I think we can and should take decisive action in this area.
Who is your Homo Hero?
Alexander the Great